When John Kennedy made his commitment to land a man on the moon by the end of 1960s, the New Frontier president expressed a dream that went far beyond Cold War pride in planting an American flag on the lunar surface. Addressing a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy also spoke glowingly of the "promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself."
Nearly half a century later, the last flickering embers of that dream were extinguished in a single bullet point on Page 120 of Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget. In a dismissive tone, the Obama budget document announced the cancellation of NASA's $9 billion Constellation program, which (how boring) "was planning to use an approach similar to the Apollo program to return astronauts back to the Moon 50 years after that program's triumphs." Instead of pursuing JFK's exuberant vision of flying to the edge of the solar system in nuclear powered space ships, America will be once again left without a launch vehicle (or even anything on the drawing board) capable of carrying astronauts beyond the orbiting International Space Station.
Make no mistake, the manned space program has been a long time dying since Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, climbed back into his lunar module on December 14, 1972, leaving behind the last set of footprints on the moon's surface. Decades of political indifference, inadequate budgets and ill-conceived projects like the space shuttle have all taken their toll. Periodically, presidents trying to wax Kennedyesque would pledge, as George W. Bush did in 2004, to "undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time." But a presidential commission headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine concluded last fall that NASA's star-crossed Constellation program would be unlikely to put an American back on the moon before 2030 without a major increase in funding. As a result, an earth-bound Obama pulled the plug, even as he slightly increased NASA's budget.
NASA director Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle astronaut and retired Marine Corps general, tried to pretend that gassy rhetoric alone would lift America back into a moon orbit. Presenting NASA's budget Monday, Bolden used the kind of cliché-filled self-congratulatory language favored by corporate CEOs when they miss their earnings targets: "President Obama today has given us a bold challenge to become an engine of innovation . . . We intend to blaze a new trail of discovery and development." A more honest assessment was offered by Augustine in a statement released by NASA: "While many of us who believe in human spaceflight might have hoped that still further funding would have been possible, this is obviously a demanding period from a budgetary standpoint."
The NASA spending request ($19 billion for 2011) is a nearly invisible rounding error in the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Warren Buffett could pay for NASA for two years -- and afterwards still remain one of the richest men in America. So the latest suspension of American efforts to return to the moon is far more a question of will rather than wallet. There is an unmistakable been-there-done-that quality to the Obama administration's approach to outer space. Budget director Peter Orszag made that abundantly clear when he said Monday, "The Constellation program, which is over budget and behind schedule, was intended to do what we've already done, which is return a man or woman to the moon."
Oscar Wilde had the appropriate response to Orszag, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Maybe you had to grow up reading "Lucky Star, Space Ranger" or developing an encyclopedic knowledge of every plot point in "Star Trek" to grasp it, but there remains grandeur and majesty to space travel that transcends small-bore budgetary arithmetic. This is not to diminish the suffering that accompanies 10 percent unemployment or to minimize the threadbare quality of our domestic institutions. But America is also a nation fighting two wars -- and the latest military projections envision this as the new normal for decades to come. Somehow a great power finds the resources to do what it believes it needs to do (consider the invasion of Iraq) without yielding to the dire pronouncements of budget directors.
The underlying question -- worthy of serious book-length treatment -- is: Why did two generations of Americans fall out of love with the space program? At the end of "The Right Stuff," his classic study of the initial John Glenn generation of astronauts, Tom Wolfe theorizes that it all came to an end as soon as Americans stopped fearing nuclear war with the Soviet Union: "Never again would an astronaut be perceived as a protector of the people, risking his life to do battle in the heavens. Not even the first American to walk on the moon would ever know the outpouring of a people's most primal emotions that Shepard, Cooper, and, above all, Glenn had known." That interpretation, which seems artful but glib, does fit Obama's 21st century status as a president, who was an infant when Glenn orbited the earth and was just seven years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969.
The 1960s space program also represented the tail end of an era when the U.S. Government attempted and succeeded at doing great things -- the Hoover Dam, the Marshall Plan, the interstate highway program, and putting a man on the moon. (The Soviets, in contrast, abandoned their lunar ambitions in 1974 after four spectacularly failed launch attempts.)
But somehow in the jungles of Vietnam and Washington hearing rooms of Watergate, Americans lost their faith in large ambitions for government. This is not a backhanded reference to the familiar left-versus-right battles over social welfare programs. Rather it is the acknowledgment of the failure of America (including the business community) to build a fast intercity railroad network, upgrade the cross-country electrical grid, modernize the air traffic system, update the nation's decaying infrastructure, or move towards energy independence. Whether Democrats or Republicans control the White House and Congress, the inevitable result has been parched dreams and petty bickering.
The Obama administration clings to the myth that someday Americans will again venture to the frontiers of space -- or, as the budget document so eloquently puts it, "Future heavy-lift rocket systems . . . will increase the capability of future exploration architecture with significantly lower operations costs than current systems." Yes, this is the kind of poetry that springs to mind when you gaze in awe at a full moon and the flickering, beckoning light of Mars.
But, in truth, America has lost its explore-the-solar-system gumption -- and any manned return to outer space could well be an international mission aboard a Russian or a European craft with China or Japan footing much of the bill. Or, if the national mood someday shifts, maybe America will return to the moon in time to place a 100th anniversary plaque at the precise spot where Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.